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Category: The Business of Health Care

Can Health Care Be Bought and Sold on eBay?

We’re not quite there yet. But there is a new website that is getting close.

A small, emerging online service called MediBid is creating an actual market that puts doctors together with patients who need care.

Here’s the best thing about it. Patients who use this service can cut their health care costs in half. No, that’s not a misprint. Patients who obtain care through MediBid pay about half as much as BlueCross pays. Ditto for all the major employer plans as well as the other big insurance companies. Patients frequently pay even less than what government pays under Medicare.

Here’s the worst thing about it. Once ObamaCare kicks in, entrepreneurial ventures like this one will probably be nipped in the bud. That’s because the Obama administration doesn’t believe that patients can or should be able to buy care in an open marketplace. In fact, once they get through implementing the 2,700-page bill with 159 regulatory agencies and 10,000 pages of regulations, patients are unlikely to ever see a real price for any type of care.

At least for the time being, however, a market for medical care is emerging. Here’s how it works.

Patients who are willing to travel and able to pay cash, can request bids or estimates for specific medical procedures. They fill out medical questionnaires and they can upload their medical records. The patient’s identity is kept confidential until a transaction is consummated. MediBid-affiliated physicians and other medical providers respond by submitting competitive bids for the requested care.

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Why Can’t the ICU Be More Like a Cockpit?

In the world of patient safety, we’re constantly reinforcing the importance of teamwork and communication, both among clinicians and with patients. That’s because we know that patient harm so often occurs when vital information about a patient’s care is omitted, miscommunicated or ignored.

Yet for all we do to improve how humans work together, clinicians compete against an environment in which there is very little teamwork or communication among the technologies that they need to care for patients. And there’s little that clinicians or hospitals alone can do about it.

Take, for example, the plethora of alarms from cardiac monitors and other devices that compete for clinicians’ attention. Vendors act as if we are in an alarm race, with each making their devices’ beeps more annoying but no clear prioritizing of the most important alarms. A study on one 15-bed Hopkins Hospital unit a few years ago found that a critical alarm sounded every 92 seconds. As a result, nurses waste their precious time chasing an ever-growing number of false alarms—or becoming desensitized to false alarms and ignoring them. Across the country, this has had tragic consequences, as patients have died while their alarms went unheeded. (Read a 2011 Boston Globe series about this issue.)

In most other high-risk industries, such as aviation and nuclear power, technologies are integrated. They talk to each other, and they automatically adjust based on feedback. Indeed, because of systems integration, pilots fly a small amount of a flight, and even in some treacherous situations, they hand over the reins to the autopilot. Although Southwest Airlines or the U.S. Air Force can buy a working plane, you cannot buy a working hospital or ICU. You must put it together yourself.

There are many other examples of how health care is grossly under-engineered. Consider these:

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Can CMS Be a Venture Capitalist?

Lisa Suennen, a venture capitalist, writes this post about the provision in the national health care reform act that created the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMI). This agency has $10 billion to “research, develop, test and expand innovative payment and service delivery models that will improve the quality and reduce the costs of care” for patients covered by CMS-related programs. Lisa notes, “What is great about CMI is that they have the authority to run their programs much more like a business would without many historical governmental constraints. ”

I don’t want to be a stick in the mud, particularly as my able friend Don Berwick takes charge of CMS, but I want to point out that previous efforts by the government to be innovative in other fields have failed because:

(1) Venture funding embodies risk-taking. Government usually does not do this because there is a political imperative never to be blamed for misspending taxpayer money. The bureaucracy, therefore, systematically eliminates ideas that are untested.Continue reading…